Dirk Hoksbergen: A Lesser-Known Figure of the 1834 Secession
Throughout the history of the church, reformatory movements have often received their impetus and momentum from youthful vigour. The great Reformation of the sixteenth century was spearheaded by men such as John Calvin, who wrote the first edition of his most important work, the Institutes, when he was but 27 years old. We see this same thing happening at the first Synod of the Secession churches in 1836. The oldest minister, Rev. Hendrik de Cock, was 35 years old. Rev. H.P. Scholte was 31 – but the others (Gezelle Meerburg, Brummelkamp and VanVelzen) were all under the age of 30. Eleven elders were also appointed to this first synod, and some of them seem to have been older men. But among them was also a relatively young 35-year-old: Dirk Hoksbergen from Kampen. Unlike de Cock and many of the other Seceders, Hoksbergen had seen the problems in the Netherlands state church from his youth.
Life of Hoksbergen
Dirk Hoksbergen was born in Oldebroek on May 4, 1800, the second son of Beert Hoksbergen. We do not know much about his father. He remarried when his first wife passed away, and Dirk was the first of the offspring from his second marriage. Dirk’s mother passed away when he was 8 years old and his father when he was 15. Beert Hoksbergen himself had many misgivings about the direction of the Netherlands Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk). This undoubtedly played a role in the shaping of his son. Dirk Hoksbergen received enough education as a child and teenager to allow him to ably express himself in both writing and speaking – as we shall see later. He was also an avid reader. As a young man, he thrived on the writings of authors such as Alexander Comrie, William a Brakel, and John Calvin – and this at a time when these names were virtually unknown in the Dutch state church.
Dirk Hoksbergen married Matje Broekhuis in his hometown of Oldebroek in the province of Gelderland on February 21, 1823. Matje passed away in 1847 and Dirk was remarried that same year to Aaltje Netjes. From these two marriages, 17 children were born, but of these, only 10 survived into adulthood.
Hoksbergen and the Secession
Hoksbergen first appears in the history of the Secession when he writes an intense letter to Rev. de Cock concerning the corrupted state of the church and the schools. The letter was originally sent in 1833, and de Cock published it in 1835.1 A quote will give you the feel for the passion of Hoksbergen concerning the deformation of the Dutch state church:
Our fathers had a saying: ‘When you want to see the Pope, you have to be in Rome.’ We don’t have to go there anymore, for we can find him in our own backyard. Who are these perjurers!? Instead of Christians, they are Antichrists, adversaries; they oppose those who remain faithful to the precepts and statutes of the Lord.
In 1835, de Cock visited Hoksbergen at his farm and together they organized a meeting for people concerned about the state of the church. Shortly thereafter, the Secession church of Wilsum was formed. However, for some unknown reason, Hoksbergen did not become a member of this congregation. On June 4, 1835, he and de Cock instituted a Secession church in Kampen – and it was this church for which Hoksbergen was chosen for the office of elder.
Hoksbergen, however, was not just an ordinary elder as we understand the office today. He had been appointed as a “teaching elder.” When he first took up this office, he was reading the sermons of ministers, but soon the time came when he began making and delivering his very own sermons.2 Apparently, these sermons from this relatively uneducated farmer were very edifying for his congregation and they consequently loved him dearly. He devoted much of his time to the work of the church, something he was able to do since he seems to have been quite successful in the farming business. He would have hired-help during his absences for home-visits and synods – not something every farmer could afford to do at that time.
At the First Synod of the Secession Churches
In 1836, Hoksbergen appeared at the first synod of the Secession Churches in Amsterdam. He had been delegated on behalf of the churches in the province of Overijssel. Since the King had forbidden the Seceders to meet, that first synod met in secret in an upstairs room at the home of the mother-in-law of Rev. Scholte. They met for ten days and had to deal with many difficult matters. One of these was the case of Rev. J. VanRhee, a minister who had apparently sinned against the seventh commandment. Along with Scholte and VanVelzen, Dirk Hoksbergen was appointed to a committee to deal with this matter. They unanimously recommended that VanRhee should be deposed.3 Another committee, consisting of the same men, was appointed to come with a manual for the education of young children. It is quite noteworthy that Hoksbergen, above all his other peers in the office of elder, was chosen for this task. He quite evidently had abilities which made him desirable for this work.
Perhaps the most interesting decision of this synod as it pertains to Dirk Hoksbergen is the one concerning the “teaching elders” or “exhorters.” Together with Rev. de Cock and elder Smedes from Assen, Hoksbergen formed a committee to study this issue. Appealing to the decisions of the convent of Wezel, Synod Middelburg 1581, the Hague 1586, Dort 1578 and Dort 1618-19, the brothers made their case for the legitimacy of teaching elders in the Secession congregations. If one has the gift of exhortation, says their report, he “shall deem himself guilty when he does not use this gift to the edification of the congregation.”4 Thus Hoksbergen could also feel justified for what he was doing in Kampen.
When the work of the synod was completed and the acts were written, Hoksbergen was also on the committee which examined and approved the acts for publication. From all this it is quite evident that Hoksbergen was not a small figure at this first synod. The farmer from Kampen was a mover and shaker, so to speak.
At the Second Synod in Utrecht
Due to tensions in the churches, particularly between de Cock and Scholte, there was another synod the following year (1837) in Utrecht. Hoksbergen was once again the delegate from Overijssel. The previous synod had adopted the old Church Order of Dort, but now Rev. Scholte and some others were arguing that the old Church Order was useless and obsolete. This made Hoksbergen very irritated. Scholte had problems especially with the amount of influence that the old Church Order gave to the government in church matters. He was uncomfortable with a Church Order which left the final decision in many things up to the civil government instead of the church. Hoksbergen was aggravated that someone would dare to question the wisdom of Dort. Hoksbergen esteemed very highly the wisdom of those who have gone before him. He says in one place that he has a desire “to crawl behind them from a long distance.”5
There was much tension at this synod because of this issue. This tension was complicated by the fact that, because of the government oppression, all the delegates had to stay together in the same building for 14 days and 14 nights. The government had forbidden meetings of more than 20 people – but there were 24 delegates to this synod. An armed guard enforced the law at the front entrance of the building where the synod was to be held. The extra 4 members had to sneak inside the building and once inside the whole group did not leave until the synod was over. At one point, Hoksbergen went into a lonely room to find Rev. de Cock weeping because of the intense conflict among the brothers. It was truly a sad affair – who can blame de Cock for his tears? In the end, the tears and weeping were for nought. The new Church Order won the day and Dort was set aside. De Cock and Hoksbergen were at the forefront of the struggle to prevent this from happening – and then it is no wonder that Hoksbergen was not appointed to any committees at this synod. This synod ended up splitting the Secession churches.
Hoksbergen maintained his position against the new Church Order, but de Cock was persuaded otherwise. Rev. A.C. VanRaalte had visited Mrs. de Cock and discussed the matter with her, convincing her that the new Church Order of Scholte was not that bad. With all of this pressure, de Cock became convinced. This, as one might imagine, created irreconcilable strife between de Cock and Hoksbergen. Hoksbergen would later write about this event, “Then he laid his head in Delilah’s lap.”6
Another meeting was held in 1837 in Nieuwleusen to attempt a reconciliation with those who wanted to hold on to the Church Order of Dort, but it was to no avail. Hoksbergen was stubbornly attached to the fathers of Dort and he would not turn aside to the left or to the right. The meeting was a failure. But the defenders of the adopted Church Order were not to be stopped. They went to Kampen – behind Hoksbergen’s back – and tried to convince his congregation that he was wrong. When Hoksbergen found out about this, he became even more stubborn in his position. The end result was that there were no longer any ministers who would preach or administer the sacraments in Kampen.
What was to be done about this situation? Hoksbergen knew that the Dort Church Order did not provide for a situation like this. This was an emergency situation. One Sunday in 1838, Hoksbergen suggested to the congregation that they ought to select a man to baptize the children and administer the Lord’s Supper. There were four children who needed to be baptized and they could not remain unbaptized.
The man need not have the gift of preaching, said Hoksbergen. I will continue preaching, but if you want to choose a different man to administer the sacraments, that is fine.
There was some resistance to this proposal, but the majority agreed, and in the end (not surprisingly) Hoksbergen was chosen to administer the sacraments. Thus, Hoksbergen essentially became the minister of the Church in Kampen. He would never actually be called “Reverend,” although later in life he would sometimes wear the clothing associated with the office at that time. The popular press referred to him as the “Klompendominee” (Wooden-shoe minister) because he would wear his everyday farm clothes and wooden-shoes while in Kampen for catechism classes and home-visits.
When de Cock heard what had happened in Kampen, he fired off a letter rebuking Hoksbergen for his high-handedness and presumption. Hoksbergen quickly prepared a response in which he demonstrated that it was not he that was presumptuous, but rather those who had rejected the Church Order of Dort for the Church Order of Scholte adopted at Utrecht. Appealing to de Cock’s opposition to manmade hymns, he pointed out that just as Dort was wise in rejecting manmade hymns, so it also would still be wise to reject all other innovations in the church – including a new church order. He concluded his letter in this way:
I still have the desire with you, in all simplicity of heart, to look into these matters by the light of God’s Word. I will still receive you as a brother, you still have a place with me, even though it is between you and me as with David and Uriah. In the meantime, I wish with all my heart that the old relationship would be like in days past; which I desire back, but only after the counsel of Solomon (Proverbs 22:28): “Remove not the ancient landmark, which your fathers have set.” 7
Also this letter did not have its desired effect. The rift between Hoksbergen and de Cock only grew wider and wider.
Suspension and Deposition
On June 18, 1838 there was yet another meeting at Nieuwleusen to try and convince the opponents of the Utrecht Church Order. There was no success. If they could not be convinced they would be convicted. Accusations were brought forward. Hoksbergen was accused of rejecting order in the church, seducing faithful teachers and unlawfully exercising the office of Minister. There was a vote and the majority agreed that Hoksbergen and the others were guilty as charged. At this point, elder Schouwenburg from Zwolle read a document which stated that they were leaving the Secession Churches. Along with Hoksbergen and the church at Kampen, also the churches of Zalk, Deventer, Mastenbroek and Rouveen expressed their agreement and left the meeting. After they had left, the remaining delegates first suspended and then finally deposed the “schismatics.” Those who had left would after this time be known as the “Dort Reformed.”
There were further attempts at reconciliation on the part of VanRaalte in 1838 and de Cock in 1840, but these did not get anywhere. The “Dort Reformed” demanded that those who held on to the Utrecht Church Order bring forward a confession of guilt and ask for forgiveness. Only then could there be any reconciliation. As far as that went, it was hopeless.
The situation among the churches which had left was also becoming tense. There was no agreement about whether or not a “teaching elder” could administer the sacraments. Certain churches wanted to appoint five ministers who would serve the churches in general – something with which Hoksbergen could absolutely not agree. Ministers should be called by a certain congregation. But the churches went ahead despite the protests of Hoksbergen. After this point, Hoksbergen isolated himself and the church in Kampen. He had grown tired of fighting, tired of ecclesiastical assemblies. Hoksbergen would henceforth remain on his Kampen island – despite efforts later in 1851 to try and bring him and his flock back.
In 1869, most of the churches which had left the Secession churches reunited. The Utrecht Church Order had finally been rejected. Another roadblock had almost been removed, namely the request for government authorization which the Secession churches had made. At the beginning, the Secession churches had insisted that they were the true continuation of the Netherlands Reformed Church and insisted that the government recognize them as such. This led to their persecution and eventually brought most of the Secession churches to request recognition and authorization as a separate entity with a different name. However, this request was eventually repudiated. Reunion could take place. But Hoksbergen would have no part in it. We do not know what his reasons were, but Hoksbergen continued to isolate himself.
Problems in Kampen
His self-isolation could not prevent other problems from arising. Around 1850, the Kampen congregation 8 purchased a brewery building which was renovated into a church building. Members of the congregation had put forward most of the money from their own pockets for the purchase. By 1870 these congregation members still had not received their money back and they were furious. Hoksbergen told them repeatedly that there was no money. But they persisted. Things came to a head on February 6, 1870 when the church building was locked up with chains and a police guard placed in front. The congregation members demanded their money and they demanded a new minister. The money was nowhere to be seen and the “minister” – well, he was already gone. Yes, Dirk Hoksbergen had resigned from his office on January 16, 1870. Two weeks later he preached a farewell sermon on Acts 20:28-32. And then, on February 19, 1870, at the age of 69 years, Dirk Hoksbergen passed away into glory.
An exciting life, but also very tumultuous. Conflict followed Hoksbergen wherever he went. His ecclesiastical life was one problem after another. He was a stubborn man, there can be little question about it. But was he stubborn about the right things? Often he was, for instance in his insistence on the Church Order of Dort. Even when the whole Church was against him and friends had betrayed him, he maintained that the Dort Church Order is the most biblical form of church government. We can admire him for his tenacity in holding to that belief. We do have to put question marks beside some of his reasoning. He did not always interpret Scripture properly. When this was pointed out, he had a tendency to retreat into arguments such as: “This is what I think, and I have the Holy Spirit, so I must be right.” In modern terms, he often appears to have been hungry for power in the Church. We wonder at how a non-ordained and relatively uneducated person could basically appoint himself to the ministry with the approval of his congregation. Dirk Hoksbergen was a man with many faults and we should not glaze over them.
At the same time, we should recognize that the Lord used also this farmer for the preservation and continuance of His Church. The voice of Hoksbergen concerning the Dort Church Order ultimately did not go unheeded – it is basically our Church Order today. The preaching of Hoksbergen was edifying for his congregation and we have no idea how many sick and dying passed into the arms of the Lord under his watchful care. Furthermore, we must not forget that Dirk Hoksbergen was also a family man. He raised his children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. His children did the same and so today many of Dirk Hoksbergen’s descendants are believers, also in the Canadian Reformed churches. The LORD God used a weak and sinful man such as Dirk Hoksbergen for His purposes in the history of the Church and we may look back on that with thankfulness and praise to God.